Van Breda the bizarre: The many faces of a family killer
Throughout his trial, conviction and sentencing, he went from confident to cocky to crestfallen to consumed by denial
Perhaps he thought he would get away with it.
Perhaps in his mind, he literally believes he didn’t do it.
Or perhaps he knew his fate was sealed when he was driven away in an ambulance on a warm January morning three years ago as the dead bodies of his parents and brother were carted away and his sister, barely still alive, was rushed off the scene and into the care of a surgeon who didn’t believe she would pull through.
It is impossible to say.
But now that Henri van Breda is seeking leave to appeal both the judgment and the sentence handed down to him in the Cape Town High Court on Thursday, it is clear that he still won’t give up the ghost.
This is after a drawn-out trial of almost 70 days, legal fees in excess of R5-million, and a damning statement by the judge which leaves little wiggle room for this case going any further.
“You launched a savage and continuous attack upon your victims. You survived with inconsequential injuries. These attacks display a high level of innate cruelty and an almost unprecedented disregard for the welfare of one's own family,” Judge Siraj Desai said on Thursday.
He was given three life sentences.If his demeanour in court is any sort of litmus test for how an accused feels about the potential success of his trial, Van Breda’s can only be described as a flatline with very occasional bumps. What is interesting, however, is that those brief flashes of the man behind the marble facade have definitely changed over the course of the trial.
In the very beginning, when the trial began more than a year ago, it felt as if the permeability of the luxury De Zalze estate’s perimeter fence was on trial rather than Van Breda himself.
At that stage the defence mounted a tireless attack, delving deep into every moving part of electric fences, registers that are signed at the gate, personnel who come on and off duty. You name it.
Every time the defence scored a point – for example, when it came to light that not every car that drove past the boom had its number plate written down – Van Breda would smile as if to say: “Now go ahead and claim again that there was no possibility of an intruder.”
At that stage he looked fit and healthy, with impeccably groomed hair and a clean-shaven face.
He could also not suppress his smugness – also early on in the trial – when the state’s only limp witness, Colonel Stewart, was grilled by defence counsel Piet Botha in the stand. Stewart had contested that a single strand of hair found in survivor Marli van Breda’s hand was that of her brother, the then-accused Henri.But, it soon became obvious this wasn’t possible when the hair in question was much longer than Van Breda’s hair had been at the time.
The very next day in court, as if to drive the point home a little further, Van Breda arrived looking more dapper than ever, sporting a freshly cut head of hair and a charming smile.
After all, things were going his way.
His demeanour began to shift, however, as the weeks wore on, with the state delivering pearl upon pearl of wisdom before Judge Siraj Desai. Forensic pathologists, ballistics experts, and DNA analysts all stood in the witness stand uttering words that wiped any smile away little by little.
Not long after that, the smiles became almost non-existent.
Instead, one saw a young man with circles under his eyes that grew darker by the day as he compulsively spun a ring around on a piece of paper.
That was also around the time that his engagement with court proceedings and intermittent taps on the shoulders of his counsel slipped away.
But then, an elixir.
Stepping into the witness box, clearly against the advice of his counsel, Van Breda was clearly reinvigorated. Given the judicial mic, he now had the opportunity to use his powers of articulation.
He had a just-add-water response for any question thrown at him, and even as Judge Desai’s irritation was sometimes obvious, Van Breda kept up the school boy cockiness. He had also managed to score some eco-brownie points by shaving his head completely and telling curious journalists that he was doing his bit to save water.
By the end of the trial, perhaps floating on the lilo of all evidence being “circumstantial”, he thought he still had an outside chance of a favourable judgement.
But that was not meant to be and, instead, Judge Desai said he could make no inference other than that Van Breda had not only wiped out his family, but had done so in a premeditated fashion.
All that was left was to fight for a lighter sentence. But again, this was not to happen.
Botha told Desai that his client had made it clear that any hunt for mercy would be tantamount to saying he did the dastardly deeds. And he wouldn’t go there.
In the High Court on Thursday, when the words about life sentences were still warm from Desai’s mouth, Botha rose to his feet and said: “My client would like to seek leave to appeal both the judgment and the sentence.”
Reality will bite, but it hasn’t bitten yet.
Denial, as the saying goes, is a river in Africa.